Center Parcs opens at Longford this summer. Vickie Maye visits the Woburn Park resort near London to see what Irish families can expect.
It’s a sudden blast of heat that takes you by surprise, that feeling when you emerge from the doors of an airplane to a surge of tropical air.
It’s intense, it catches your breath for a moment. You can’t imagine ever inhaling deeply in this swelter.
And then, suddenly, the body adjusts and it’s as though the sunshine is in our bones.
Overhead, all around us, are palm trees. We stare at the foliage above, the sunlight casting dappled shadows through the lush canopy.
My daughter finally finds her voice. I can hear the disbelief in her voice.
“It’s like being on a sun holiday mum.”
I nod, just as stunned.
Welcome to Center Parcs Subtropical Swimming Paradise.
Yet here we were in this pool with its glass roof, permanently heated to a balmy 29.5 degrees, the palm trees completing the illusion.
This summer the same pool will open at Center Parcs in Longford Forest — and it will transform Irish holidays forever.
The threat of rain simply won’t matter anymore. And if it is sunny there’s always the man-made beach.
We spent one glorious afternoon making sandcastles by the water, breaking only for a little venture on the peddle boats available for hire (£13.50 for half an hour for a boat that seats four).
The peddle boats are just the beginning.
There are endless activities here, over 100 of them, and there’s something for everyone, from budding artists to action seekers. But each one comes at a cost. So here’s where you need to plan in advance.
Navigate your way through the extensive list of optional extras before you travel and get the kids on board — warn them there’ll be no other activities (or you’ll have crying toddlers insistent on booking into ‘Build a Bear’).
One of our favourites was the den building — for a little over 90 minutes Andy ramped up the competition between families as we raced through the forest for logs, sticks and bark, anything that would make at least part of our den waterproof to pass the ‘den master’s’ test: one of us had to sit inside our wooden creation as Andy poured water over the top.
When smaller family members began to get bored and a little distracted Andy was on hand to swoop them up to design a name for the den on wooden plaques, and do a little commando face painting, just to really get into the groove.
It was worth every penny of the £42 session fee.
We really put our nerves to the test with the Aerial Adventure and the Tree Top Walk, the former for the older kids, the latter for the younger ones. It was challenging for us all.
Harnesses kept us secure as we hung on for dear life and negotiated zip lines, suspended tyres and wooden planks.
The six-year-old was terrified but instructor Tyler walked with her every step of the way.
The look on her face as she took her final step back to base, awash with relief and pride, was my holiday highlight.
This was pricey, especially with four kids — £27.50 for the Tree Top Walk and £34 each for the Aerial Adventure.
For true daredevils there was also The Drop, which does exactly what it says on the tin — the sheer fall, even with the harness, was too much for our party.
The older girls booked into Aqua Jets (£30 for the 2) before the pool opened one morning and sped through the lazy river with Richard — like every other instructor we encountered at the resort, he made the experience fun yet safe for the kids.
We also rented bikes and with no cars allowed beyond the car parks on site, they were a useful addition on a practical level, but wonderful too for evening woodland treks.
With all those activities, truth be told the pool was all we needed. The opening hours — 10am-9pm — meant it was accessible any time, after breakfast, or lunch, and even after dinner.
There was a baby pool for the four-year-old, complete with pirate-themed slides.
Over in the bigger pool (with a paddling area that still felt safe for the youngest), the wave machine was the biggest draw card. Every half hour a Tarzan call rang out across the pool and kids squealed with excitement — the waves were coming.
After four days my kids never tired of it. That Tarzan chant still had them clapping and chanting with excitement on our final morning.
For the daredevils, and I had two, there were three water slides, and the Wild Water Rapids.
The rapids had us all shrieking with fear one moment, laughter the next, as we were thrust helter skelter through weaving water-filled outdoor slides at a breakneck speed.
And then there was the Tropical Cyclone — the water slide that will have you screaming from start to finish, the steep drop mid way through the ride as you clutch on to your inflatable base was unexpected, terrifying — and addictively thrilling.
We were queuing for a second run the second it ended.
There is also an option to rent a private family cabana, fitted with a TV, refreshments and loungers — this, I soon discovered, wasn’t a priority for my family of adrenaline junkies.
We stayed at an executive lodge, with an outdoor BBQ area, a valuable addition with our mini hot spell. There was also a sauna in the back garden but with four kids to entertain, it wasn’t put to the test.
The games room, with a pool table and cupboard packed with everything from Charades to Scrabble to decks of cards, was the focal point of the evenings. It was bliss.
With a sweeping forest vista the view from our balcony, and bird songs each morning, here you are at one with nature.
You stop for ducks to cross the road, share the beach with ducklings. Squirrels were regular visitors to our back garden.
Treatment options were vast in the Aqua Sana spa itself — I opted for the Decleor City Detox, appropriate, I figured, in this forest hideaway.
And I was right — a relaxing back and scalp massage and an invigorating, exfoliating facial struck the perfect balance.
Elsewhere on site there’s a gym, and even fitness classes, but I opted for a morning run in the forest.
On the practical side, daily housekeeping was a welcome addition.
For food, the shop on site isn’t too overpriced and had all we needed for light lunches and evening BBQs. There are a few restaurant options — Starbucks among them — but we couldn’t resist The Pancake House for breakfast, and ate at Huck’s American diner one evening.
It was ideal for families travelling with young kids — a buffet for smallies meant they had no waiting around, and a play area kept them entertained while mum ate.
There are a few shops too for clothes, or gifts, but we were lured beyond them towards the playgrounds.
Center Parcs is all about the kids, and we spotted large groups of extended families on our trip.
A sports bar was the option for an evening drink and while it was fitted out with pool tables for teens, wall-to-wall large-screen TVs blasting matches and commentaries meant it lacked any character.
The Longford option will have another venue: Cara’s Kitchen and Bar, with the promise of live music, so it may tick a box for parents who feel like an early evening drink.
Families who visit resorts and opt for the kids’ club option should note too that this isn’t an option at Center Parcs — here, you do everything together as a family.
We built our visit into a holiday in London — trips on the tube to Buckingham Palace and the Natural History Museum, and another day trip to Legoland (made very affordable with the Kelloggs’ adults go free vouchers).
From London the train connections to Flitwick were straightforward with a courtesy bus to collect us for Center Parcs. Because we were flying, space was tight.
But I am already looking forward to the ease of just loading up the roof box and the bike racks and heading to the 400 acres at Longford fully equipped.
Center Parcs’ arrival in Ireland will give locals the chance to experience French camping holidays on home soil — minus the hassle of a ferry and long drives back and forth.
And with that pool, a rainy summer day just won’t matter anymore.
We’ll be basking in 29 degree tropical heat — in Longford.
Bookings for short breaks from August 23 onwards can now be made at www.centerparcs.ie with the official launch date to be announced in the coming months.
Prices for a family of four start from €299 off peak for a four-night midweek stay.